By Swapnil Ghosh
The conflict in Tigray constitutes the single largest humanitarian crisis currently raging. The outcome of the conflict will determine the future of Ethiopia, and the Horn of Africa at large, since Ethiopia is the largest country in the region. A unilateral government triumph will decimate the civilian population of Tigray, while a successful Tigrayan secession will throw the geopolitical status quo into chaos. This article analyses the origins of the conflict, the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis, and the involvement of foreign powers in the war.
The Bloodiest War: Tragedy in the Tigray
The conflict in the Tigray constitutes the single largest humanitarian crisis currently raging. The outcome of the conflict will determine the future of Ethiopia, and the Horn of Africa at large, since Ethiopia is the largest country in the region. A unilateral government triumph will decimate the civilian population of Tigray, while a successful Tigrayan secession will throw the geopolitical status quo into chaos. This article analyses the origins of the conflict, the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis, and the involvement of foreign powers in the war.
If you asked anyone to identify the deadliest conflict currently being fought, most of them would point to the Ukraine conflict. However, they would be wrong. As the eyes of the world focus on Europe’s convulsions, a corner of Africa with a tumultuous past has once again been overcome by the flames of a war that has killed up to half a million people, by one estimate. This conflict is the war in the Tigray, a hitherto obscure corner of Ethiopia that is now the site of a massive, ongoing humanitarian tragedy.
Ethiopia, as a whole, has had a troubled history. After a military coup overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, the country was wracked by civil war and famine. In 1991, a coalition of rebel groups overthrew the ruling military junta known as the Derg, bringing an end to the conflict which had claimed over a million lives. Preeminent amongst the victorious rebels was the leftist Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), hailing from Ethiopia’s northernmost province of Tigray. The TPLF chairman, Meles Zenawi, led the country first as President, then as Prime Minister till 2012.
The seeds for today’s conflict were laid in 2018 with the coming to power of Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister. One of Ahmed’s first major steps after coming to power was to send out peace overtures to Ethiopia’s northern neighbour, Eritrea. The border between the two countries runs along Tigray and is heavily disputed by both nations. The resultant undeclared border conflict had raged for almost twenty years and had become a significant burden on both nations’ economies. Hence, Ahmed’s initiative was met with national and international acclaim, with the “Joint Declaration on Peace and Friendship” that the two countries issued during their 2018 summit even netting Ahmed the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed, architect of the Tigray War.
In 2019, Ahmed announced his decision to merge the four parties – each representative of a different ethnic group – that had ruled Ethiopia in coalition since 1991 into a single party, known as the Prosperity Party. He also shifted the direction of the economy from state-controlled to capitalistic, emphasising a centralised model of governance and a narrative of Ethiopians of different ethnicities living as part of a homogenous whole, in contrast to the prevailing strongly federal structure, which was built around providing maximum autonomy to regional ethnic groups.
The TPLF rallied against these proposed changes, and against the rapprochement with Eritrea, their traditional rival. In 2020, the first general elections since the formation of the Prosperity Party were supposed to take place but were delayed citing COVID-19 as an excuse, and the terms of existing lawmakers were extended to an undetermined date. The TPLF declared that these measures were unconstitutional, and in defiance of the federal government announced that they would organise their own regional elections. These elections, inevitably deemed illegal by the central government, occurred in September 2020, amidst an atmosphere of rising tensions and armed clashes between the TPLF and government forces.
On the night of 3rd November, these clashes erupted into an open war, as the TPLF militias attacked the Ethiopian army headquarters in the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle and other military bases scattered across the region. The government responded by declaring a state of emergency in Tigray and launching a military counter-offensive. Massacres and counter-massacres occurred across the region, with government forces targeting ethnic Tigrayans, and Tigrayan militias targeting outside ethnicities such as the Amharas. In January 2021, the National Election Board of Ethiopia dissolved the TPLF as a legally recognised political party.
The Course of the War and Eritrean Intervention
Map of Ethiopia; Tigray is to the north, bordering Eritrea.
The first phase of the war, from November 2020 to June 2021, was characterised by a Tigrayan guerrilla insurgency against Ethiopian security forces. The Eritrean army also got involved in the conflict to support its newfound ally, Abiy Ahmed, with UN officials estimating that up to 40% of Tigray was occupied by Eritrean forces. Eritrea’s actions in support of its former rival might seem strange, but they are motivated by a variety of factors. Firstly, the TPLF had been the regime in power during much of the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict; they are thus a common enemy for both Eritrea and Abiy Ahmed, who displaced them to come to power. Secondly, by propping up Ahmed’s regime, Eritrea seeks to establish itself as a power broker in Ethiopia, and by extension, the Horn of Africa region as a whole, since Ethiopia is the largest and most powerful country in the region. An Ethiopia destabilised and divided by conflict cannot present a threat to Eritrean interests; as such, Eritrean troops in Tigray have repeatedly been observed acting without consultation with Ethiopian command to massacre civilians and further stoke the conflict.
In June of 2021, the war took a new turn as the TPLF embarked on a large-scale offensive which recaptured Mekelle. Tigrayan forces even struck into other parts of the country, prompting the declaration of a nationwide state of emergency in November 2021. In that same month, government forces launched a counteroffensive that blunted the Tigrayan advance. A tentative ceasefire was negotiated in March 2022 but broke down in August. Since then, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have been involved in a massive offensive on Tigray, with both Eritrea and Tigray initiating far-ranging mobilisations that include calling up even women and the elderly.
Like most internecine conflicts, the Tigray War has been marked by repeated instances of atrocities against civilians. Just last month, the UN’s International Commission of Human Rights Experts released a report accusing all factions of the conflict of being party to atrocities. In addition to crimes such as extrajudicial killings and rape, the report specifically accused the Ethiopian government of using famine as a weapon of war. In the words of the Commission’s Chair, “The widespread denial and obstruction of access to basic services, food, healthcare, and humanitarian assistance are having a devastating impact on the civilian population… and amounts to a crime against humanity.” Tigrayan forces have been accused of carrying out similar atrocities during their attacks on the neighbouring Afar and Amhara regions. They have also been accused of impeding the activities of humanitarian organisations in Tigray.
At this moment, roughly twenty million civilians, three-quarters of whom are women and children, are in dire need of humanitarian assistance in Tigray. Famine remains a looming threat, with up to 80% of the region being inaccessible to humanitarian agencies. The death toll of the conflict remains difficult to estimate, but the most rigorous analysis on the matter has been conducted by the University of Ghent, which maintains the Tigray Atlas of the Humanitarian Situation. In March of this year, these researchers estimated that there had been 50,000-100,000 deaths as a result of direct violence, 150,000-200,000 deaths caused by famine, and over 100,000 additional deaths due to lack of healthcare. Since then, the fighting has only intensified, with one analyst estimating that 100,000 have died in just the past few weeks of the Ethiopian-Eritrean offensive.
The Ethiopian military has received significant aid from foreign powers such as the UAE during the course of the Tigray War. Apart from Eritrea, the Ethiopian government has been able to garner aid from several other foreign nations during the course of the war. Prominent amongst these is the UAE, alleged to have trained Abiy Ahmed’s personal bodyguard, and equipped his military with Chinese-made UAVs. Apart from allegations of covert aid, the UAE went on record to pledge billions of dollars of aid to Ethiopia, while Turkey, Iran and Israel have all sold arms to Ethiopia. The net result is that Ahmed has been emboldened to ignore American officials, who counselled restraint in dealing with Tigrayan rebels.
The conflict has also spilt over into neighbouring Sudan, home to large numbers of Tigrayan refugees, and Somalia. Somali troops have been accused of participating in the Tigray battles on the side of the central government, with even the former chief of Somali intelligence substantiating these allegations, although they have been denied by the Somali government.
The Tigray War is a classic example of a conflict with no clear-cut good guys; all the belligerents have committed a plethora of atrocities, and their motives for actually embarking on the conflict boil down to trying to gain more power, in Ahmed’s case, or hold on to their existing power, in the TPLF’s case. What can be said unequivocally is that the people of Tigray deserve much, much better than what they are currently subject to. International mediation, pressure and aid mechanisms can all go a long way towards alleviating the present humanitarian nightmare.
Swapnil Ghose is a first-year student at Ashoka University. As a prospective Political Science major and IR minor, his interests lie in military history and conflict studies, particularly that of the Middle East.